As Sewanee continued to demonstrate zero positive cases and a growing number of vaccinated students and faculty, the Public Health department announced a campus-wide vaccination effort on March 30 in a campus email. The email offers two school-sponsored vaccination opportunities: an appointment-only Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Wellness Center or transportation to Winchester’s Walgreens for a Moderna vaccine. The email notes that students need neither insurance nor method of payment for any vaccines.
Karen Tharp, Director of the University Health Service, says discussions for an on-campus vaccination program began when the University partnered with Walgreens for compulsory, on-campus flu vaccinations last November.
Originally, the Public Health department planned for Walgreens to administer vaccines on campus , similar to the flu vaccine clinic from last semester. However, barriers included miscommunication about their vaccine supply as well as corporate policy.
Mariel Gingrich, Public Health Director says, “What they kind of explained to us was that the vaccine is federally owned, so Walgreens has to follow federal guidelines in terms of how many vaccines get allocated and to whom.”
The University also had to establish its eligibility for receiving doses of the COVID vaccine. The federal government prioritizes vaccines reaching vulnerable populations, which usually excludes college-aged students.
According to Tharp, the state of Tennessee provides the Johnson & Johnson vaccines to the University for free. To apply for the vaccination, the University had to prove its capability to store the vaccine safely. The process began in the fall of 2020, but efforts were delayed due to changing state guidelines. Thus, the final application was finished at the beginning of March.
“[The Johnson & Johnson vaccine] was what we could get and what we could store.” Tharp says, “The Pfizer vaccine has to be frozen in a way we just can’t do. The Moderna also has to be frozen and has a very specific shelf-life. The Johnson & Johnson only needs to be refrigerated, and we already have the capability to do that with the other vaccines we have here at the health service.”
The first week of the vaccination plan, the University received 200 vaccines and acquired 400 doses the following week and anticipated a 200 dose shipment on Monday, April 4. Orders are placed every Friday based on demand.
Tharp said, “We have a really good relationship with the regional health department and folks there. We’ve been talking to them since last Spring… everyone’s working really well together, in collaboration to get us all vaccinated.”
As state eligibility opened up for students during March, many students individually left campus to receive their vaccine, either from nearby counties in Tennessee or in their home states. However, no comprehensive policy existed to provide students vaccines within “the bubble.” While many students could receive the vaccine without University aid, students without access to a car were left without any options.
According to Gingrich, Public Health created the transportation plan to Walgreens (a bus for up to 100 students) before the University had access to the Johnson & Johnson vaccines.
“We kept it open because A, it’s just another opportunity, another avenue for students to get vaccinated… B it gives them access to the Moderna vaccine, should they have a preference for any reason for an mRNA vaccine,” Gingrich says.
According to Gingrich, participation in the transportation to Walgreens has been “slow but steady.” Students can sign up using this form.
Gingrich says she met with members of the Student Government Association about what vaccinations meant for the future of student life.
“That’s very difficult to say… we’re going to take into account the percentage of the student body that’s been vaccinated when we make our COVID-19 policies going forward. But first we need that data, we need confirmation that people have been vaccinated. Based on that information we can change those policies,” Gingrich says.
A week after the vaccine initiative began, Student Life sent an email detailing the process for ‘popping the bubble,’ this semester. The initiative promises that once 1,200 students confirm their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, restrictions to protect ‘the bubble’ will be lifted following a two-week waiting period. The announcement to ‘pop the bubble’ clarifies: “Policies regarding movement on and off campus are lifted, and gathering limits will be lifted. Parents, family, and friends may visit; however, outside visitors will still not be permitted to go inside residence halls and/or stay overnight on campus.”
Dean of Students, Dr. Nicole Noffsinger-Frazier, says decisions regarding ‘popping the bubble’ began as vaccinations for college-aged students opened faster than anticipated, alongside the ‘no-waste’ policy adopted by many pharmacies for unused vaccines.
According to Noffsinger-Frazier, the administration did not believe mass amounts of students would be vaccinated until the summer.
“I think the ability to have more freedom and flexibility of movement will be helpful, to know that if you want to get in your car and run to CVS and pick up some things you need. Having that ability to leave and come back will be helpful,” Noffsinger-Frazier says.
Noffisinger-Frazier observes among students, faculty, and staff “a collective sigh of relief and a sense of hope of what’s to come.”
Tharp says the only way for them to receive vaccination information is voluntarily through the survey sent to the student body.
The information from the survey is stored in the same database as testing data.
“I’m very excited,” Gingrich says, “at first, we had a just small handful of students vaccinated, people who took part in clinical trials or who have underlying health conditions. We’re getting up there now… the influx of information has been great.”
For plans for next semester, factors beyond current vaccination efforts include the ongoing spread of variants of coronavirus.
“It’s very worrisome. As of right now, the vaccines seem to be showing really great, real world efficacy… I would love to promise this all goes away, but it would be irresponsible to make any kind of projection at this point,” Gingrich says.
However, Tharp says, “I think we can say with some confidence that the quicker people get vaccinated, the more likely it is that things can be as normal as possible.”
When asked about compulsory vaccinations for students, faculty, and staff for next semester, according to Gingrich and Tharp, the answer remains unknown.
Rutgers University kick-started a small but growing number of universities requiring vaccinations for their fall semester. However, because the vaccination is under emergency authorization by the FDA, Sewanee’s Public Health is currently only recommending the vaccine. Once approved, the administration will begin conversations about mandatory vaccinations for next semester.